Latino History of RI

A collection of the voices of Rhode Island's Latino pioneers

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Pictured Above: Tomás Avila, Lydia Pérez, Victor Capellán, Alida Balderra, Patricia Martínez, Norelys Consuegra, Juán Pichardo, Delia Masjoan-Rodríguez, Mercedes “Betty” Bernal, Marta V. Martinez. Photos by Salvatore Mancini • 2001

Nuestras Raíces: An Oral History Project of the Rhode Island Latino Community

The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island began in 1991 when I met and recorded the memories of Josefina Rosario who had been co-owner (with her husband, Tony) of Fefa’s Market, the first bodega in Rhode Island. Later, I met with and recorded the voices of many other Latino pioneers, among them factory workers, community activists, social service providers, artists, elected officials, educators and others.

As the project moved forward, I chose to focus on the four largest Latino groups which the 1990 Census showed in Rhode Island: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Guatemalans. Twenty years later, the 2010 Census showed that these four groups were still the largest and fastest-growing in the state, and that the overall growth of the Hispanic population was significant compared to the greater population of Rhode Island.

The Spanish word “raíces” means “roots” in English, and this explains what this project is all about: It is about the history of the Latino community of Rhode Island. It is about the first Dominican families; the first Colombian mill workers; the first Guatemalan jewelry workers who came to Rhode Island. It is about the first Hispanic physician to open a health clinic on Broad Street; the first Latino students who enrolled in the public schools; and the first Hispanic police officer in the state. The most important observation I discovered through this project is that until the mid-1950s there was no evidence of significant numbers of Latinos anywhere in the state of Rhode Island!

The life of a long-ago immigrant or a recent arrival to America is a particularly rich topic for exploration through oral history. Granted, it is not easy to trace the personal lives of those who first made their way to America as far back as the turn-of-the 20th century, when America first began receiving countless immigrants from Europe. However, as I set out to do this project, I found it relatively easy to find individuals who came to Rhode Island from Latin-America mainly because Latinos began arriving and settling here as recently as the 1950s. Today, there are hundreds of Latinos living in Rhode Island with vivid memories of their first arrival to this state during those early years. This project captures a few important stories, and hopes to continue collecting many more Latino voices.

Cherish your history, know who you are and draw strength from it. We study the past in order to understand the present, but you can only learn from history that is not hidden.

Would you like to add your story to this collection? Fill out the online form or contact me by Email.

- Marta V. Martínez
Independent Oral Historian
Nuestras Raices, Project Director

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